3 Ways to Think about a Surfboard: Tips from Shaper and Coach Clayton Nienaber

Shaper and surf coach Clayton Neinaber, backhand snap on a Spine-Tek Clayton surfboard at Macaronis, Indonesia
Textbook backhand snap on a recent coaching trip to the Mentawais. Photo: Shane Nienaber

“So let me run a quick concept by you,” Clayton Nienaber, the founder of Clayton Surfboards, will say in his gentle South African lilt.

He will then proceed to blow your mind. With some unforeseen insight or madcap analogy, he will reorient your whole conception of what a surfboard’s for. Each syllable lands softly yet is charged with revelatory wisdom. He is, I am almost certain, a genius.

Clayton Nienaber is a surfboard shaper and a surf coach, as well as a very good surfer in his own right – a high-performance renaissance man of sorts. Practically an institution in his homeland, over the years he has shaped for numerous world-tour surfers, providing purpose-built J-Bay boards for Kelly Slater, Taylor Knox, Adriano de Souza and Jeremy Flores, among others. When Dane Reynolds lost his whole Channel Islands quiver in transit one year, it was Clayton he turned to for replacements. As coach for the South African junior team, he once taught Jordy Smith a thing or two.

Clayton Surfboards the Havok, the original Spine-Tek model
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He’s now based in Australia, where he continues to be in high demand both as shaper and as coach, and where he was instrumental to the development of Spine-Tek surfboard construction. Dissatisfied with the feel of standard PU, he teamed up with Shapers Australia, and between them they stumbled across a new composite material that, applied to a stringerless EPS blank, imparted exactly the flex properties he’d been looking for. (The original Spine-Tek model was the Havok, which we’ve got in the store). Channel Islands liked the tech so much they bought the license for it, which they share exclusively with Clayton. PU boards, Nienaber says, feel “dead underfoot” by comparison, and he now rides only Spine-Teks, no matter the model – no matter the conditions.

Reckon you know how a surfboard works? Here are three aspects of surfboard design and surf technique you may not have considered before. If you cycle to work, your commute will never be the same again.

Applying the Spine-Tek composite stringer to a Clayton surfboard
Spine-Tek: “30% better than PU,” reckons Clayton.


“Did you know the number one function of a surfboard is that it’s designed to turn?” Clayton asked me, on the phone the other day (I didn’t). “They’re not designed to float, otherwise we’d all be riding SUPs, and they’re not designed for speed, otherwise Formula 1 boats would be shaped like surfboards. But every time you turn your board, your board accelerates.
“Have a look at the design aspects. The wide point is in the middle, and when water goes past the wide point, it turns. Your fins are pointed towards the nose, which helps it turn. You’ve got rocker in the board, and then your rails are round – your rails are like a bicycle wheel, so that when you lean over on your rail the rail rolls, and your board turns in the same way a bicycle turns. When you lean over on your board your rocker’s in the water, and that helps your board to turn as well. All of those design aspects are engineered around helping your board to turn.”


“There are two ways to turn your board, one when you’re going fast and one when you’re going slow. Think about when you ride a bicycle. If you’re going fast down a hill, you’ll lean to turn it – you won’t twist the handlebars because you’ll wipe out. But when you’re going slowly you can’t lean because you’d just fall over, so you have to twist the handlebars.

Surf coach and surfboard shaper clayton Neinaber, backhand snap at Maccaronis
A firm yank of the handlebars creates the desired effect. Photo: Shane Nienaber

“Now if you think of those two concepts, when you drop into a wave you want hold off the bottom but you want release off the top. Using the bicycle analogy, if you lean at the bottom of the wave your rail will roll and your board will hold and not slide out. On the way up the wave you start to lose speed, and then you can’t lean because you’ll catch rail, so then you’ve got to twist. Only then can you release the tail, and then your board accelerates out of the top turn.
“So boards are designed to turn, you turn them through leaning and twisting, that’s how you get your hold and release. All of my surfboards are engineered around these concepts.”


“Try to surf and balance on your front foot. It’s the widest part of the board and gives you the most balance. To turn, drive the hip forward like a soccer player kicking a ball, or like a golfer hitting a ball. This way you will have more power and speed. If you push down on your back foot, you may get a direction change but this comes with a loss of speed

Clayton Neinaber of Clayton Surfboards in the shaping bay
Important rail work in Clayton’s other office – the shaping bay.

“Over your front foot you’ve got a round rail, and then over your back foot you’ve got more of a square rail, which has a hard edge. What does that hard edge do, what’s it there for? Grip? Biting into the water?
“Wrong – it’s the opposite. Think of a bicycle tyre – when you lean it rolls, and it helps you turn. Now when I’m surfing, if I lean over the rail the same principal applies and I get hold. However, if I twist and push hard on the tail as the rail enters the water, it slices the water apart, and it gives me release. So the hard edge disengages the turn, allowing the board to release and slide. Think about a cutback – if one foot ever slides out it’s the back foot, because your edge is releasing.”

Clayton Surfboards the Havok, the original Spine-Tek model
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Shop all Clayton Surfboards
Channel Islands Spine-Tek
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